Should paddleboarding while intoxicated be a crime? Should it be treated any differently from boating while intoxicated?
What about not registering a vehicle – is it a felony or should it just be a ticket? What about juvenile fishing without a license?
Last fall, an unlikely group of bedfellows – community activists, public defenders and prosecutors – began meeting to walk line by line through all of Colorado’s 1,100 crimes to decide what to do with them: ask if any should be lumped into larger categories, downgraded, or crossed out of the books altogether.
Discussions and debates lasted for hours at a time, for months.
What about killing trophy animals? What about picking the state flower? What about leaving a vehicle in a public parking lot?
Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who worked in the consensus group, said eliminating redundancy and simplifying crimes would help everyone involved in the criminal justice system.
âThere have been so many duplicative offenses,â he said. âThere were thefts and then the theft of newspapers and thefts from an innkeeperâ¦ It should be just theft.
Some laws had not been prosecuted for decades – or even for the past two centuries. There have been violations of state law dating back to the 1800s regarding cattle rustling. There was one about the illegal abandonment of a cooler.
The group weighed offenses that actually pose a risk to public safety versus those that are just irritating. Each party got it and gave it – a true example of collaboration and negotiation.
Crime reform can close a âdoorâ to the prison pipeline.
This effort was undertaken by a bipartisan state subcommittee Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission and ultimately won the consensus of virtually everyone on the commission, which spans the gamut from former criminals to law enforcement officers.
The result: A 366-page bill introduced on Thursday which aims to overhaul the way the state criminal justice system deals with and convicts crimes. The bill has the support of Republicans, Democrats and Governor Jared Polis.
And if passed, the law will affect thousands of Coloradans in the criminal justice system every day.
âThe idea was to make things a little more rational,â said Taj Ashaheed, who works at the Second Chance Center, an organization that provides aid to people released from prison. âWe would examine these crimes, their seriousness, their punishments: is that rational? Is it right?”
Even though misdemeanors carry a jail term, not jail time, Ashaheed called them a âgatewayâ to the prison pipeline. They can also catch people on parole committing a small offense, sometimes inadvertently, while trying to rebuild their lives. This violation can be a ticket back to prison.
“Is this the company you want, or if you commit this traffic violation, it could lead you to go to jail?” he said.
A new system of defining offenses wants to ensure that the punishment corresponds to the crime.
Much of the proposal is a new sentencing grid. This represents hours of debate on the sentences that correspond to the crimes.
The group divided the crimes and penalties into four categories:
- Offense 1 – The most serious offenses. Something like a bar fight or domestic violence would fall into the more egregious end of this category. This could result in up to 364 days in prison.
- Misdemeanor 2 – Compared to misdemeanors 1, which are generally crimes against persons, they are more often crimes against property or crimes of reckless endangerment. They would carry up to 120 days in prison.
- Minor offenses – It could be very low level shoplifting or criminal mischief with damages less than $ 300. These offenses can lead to up to 10 days in prison.
- Civil offenses – These are not crimes, but they could result in a ticket. Under the bill, dozens of traffic violations, such as not registering a vehicle, would be turned into civil offenses. These are not punished by any prison sentence.
Under the current system, the amount of time a person spends in jail for a certain offense can depend largely on the sheriff who runs the jail. Some sheriffs will reduce a person’s sentence time for good behavior up to half the time.
âWhat one side of the room wanted was shorter sentence ranges and what the other side of the room wanted was certainty in sentencing, so if you get three months , we can all tell … a victim how long that person is really going to last. serve, âsaid Tom Raynes, head of Colorado District Attorneys Council. “It was everywhere and it was a frustration.”
Raynes said that to reach a deal, prosecutors have given time on maximum sentences, but sheriffs will not be allowed to shave more than 10 days a month – and that would be for people on duty who have reached the status of “faithful”, or on good behavior.
Boulder DA Dougherty also noted that uniformity in sentencing will make more sense for everyone involved in the criminal justice system.
âSomeone who is serving 60 days in Durango, Pueblo or Denver should come out the same day,â he said.
Some crimes, including prostitution, have been turned into misdemeanors.
Raynes and Maureen Cain, legislative and policy director for the state’s public defender’s office, said the effort was rewarding – especially since they reached consensus.
Cain said she had approached him not believing in the current “prison” justice system – that is, putting people behind bars for most offenses – instead, she wanted that it be more restorative. But she took the opportunity to participate because she felt it might be a small step towards a positive restructuring of the criminal justice system.
“It would remove, I suspect, thousands of potentially traffic cases from the prison table, while capturing absolutely the most serious,” she said. âMake sure we have kept DUI intact, DWAI intact. We actually increased homicides and impaired assaultsâ¦ (The test was), âWhat’s scary? We looked at it and we said, ‘Is this scary?’ “
Cain said there were some examples of low level crimes that they brought into the fold – including those that contributed to juvenile delinquency.
The way the law is currently drafted and filed by prosecutors, all of which contribute to delinquency cases are felonies. Even low-level situations, such as a 21-year-old giving cigarettes to a 15-year-old, could result in a felony charge.
The new proposal takes into account what happened – was it cigarettes? It would be a case of misdemeanor. Is it a weapon? It would be a crime, she said.
Prostitution was also debated and the new proposal makes the act, on both sides, a minor offense, following a misdemeanor. Higher charges could be laid against someone “negotiating” a deal. Trafficking in human beings, which involves coercion, remains a crime.
Build trust between activists, public defenders and prosecutors.
Hours of debate – and giving and receiving on both sides on issues like this – have built confidence, Cain said.
âI could bring our customer experience from the experience of public defenders,â she said. âWe knew each other. We could laugh and talk in shorthand and we built a foundation.
She and Raynes, as well as the district attorney’s attorney, both said they were amazed at the number of crimes they had to commit.
“(The state) adds 20 to 30 offenses a year and it just gets to a point of ineffectiveness and in some cases nonsense,” Raynes said. âAs we worked together, we knew that egos, individual distinctions, and the desire for attention were going to be left out of the room. If you were ready to participate in thisâ¦ check out that thing at the door and think about it. “
This is one of many efforts undertaken by the Commission, or CCJJ for short, since then Governor Bill Ritter formed the group in 2007. Ritter said he hoped multiple stakeholders could meet regularly, before legislative sessions, to accomplish a great reform. without all the divisions often seen on Capitol Hill.
âBack when I was governor, criminal justice wasn’t really the thing to do like it is today,â Ritter said. âIt’s always a balance between the freedom of the people and the safety of (the) community. Are the communities safe? Are we keeping people in jail too long or too little? What’s the right mix? “
The work also paves the way for a similar – but likely much more controversial – venture that the group is gearing up for next year: They plan to do a similar review of crimes committed in Colorado.